As presidential terms go, the past 15 months have been unprecedented, altering political norms and jolting the nation with President Donald Trump’s drama-packed mission to make haste on his campaign promises and waste of his antagonists.
Whether he has achieved success to date depends on who you talk to in America’s heartland, the broad middle swath of the country that lifted him to his Electoral College victory in the 2016 election that almost no one foretold.
Rust Belt Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa joined Florida, the conservative midland states and the rock solid Republican South to put Trump in the White House. Voters of both major parties in small cities and rural towns turned the tide for the wealthy non-politician and reality TV star as the light at the end of their tunnel of anguish.
His braggadocio personality, his exaggerations, his impolitic temperament and even his sexual improprieties, in the end, didn’t matter. The heartland, including a majority of white women, wanted change from the natural order of politics.
QUICK TWITTER FINGER
Since January, CNHI newspapers in scores of communities in the Heartland and beyond have met with voters, listening to them in their kitchens, their living rooms and elsewhere about their concerns, disappointments and approvals.
The conversations have covered perceptions of Trump and the partisan Congress, views on the polarizing issues of health care, taxes, trade policy, gun control, race and immigration — and how attitudes have or have not changed since the 45th president took office.
The unscientific conclusion: From northern Michigan to southern Georgia, the mood remains behind Trump’s policies as voters see them, but wavers on his leadership style and his persona, especially his quick Twitter finger and his turgid vocabulary.
The economy — job growth, tax cuts, fewer regulations, stock market gains — overshadow Trump’s shortcomings in the eyes of even those who disagree with his chaotic governing style. Many working class voters still await their promised prosperity but are patiently counting on it to come.
Evangelicals, conflicted by Trump’s boorish behavior, appear to be the softest support group.
“As a pastor, I don’t think name calling is appropriate in any circumstance,” said the Rev. Chuck Ferguson of the evangelical Freewill Baptist Church in Ashland, Ky.
“The way this president has attacked, impugned and ridiculed women is atrocious. To see how he describes people who have been fired from the White House, he basically calls them worthless, ‘they’re not qualified.’ And yet they stand for him. I find that difficult to accept. Not politically, morally.”
Lee Thompson, a retired insurance agent from Enid, Oklahoma, put it this way: “I don’t like him as a person. I think he’s an egotistical narcissist. But I admire him for putting his money where his mouth is. It’s what he said he’s going to do and he’s doing it. And I like much of what he’s accomplished.”
In the North Country, Democrat Hillary Clinton drew the most votes in Clinton County and the City of Plattsburgh in the 2016 presidential election; Trump triumphed in Essex and Franklin counties.
Clinton won all 29 Electoral College votes in New York state.
Lifelong Republican Jacob Avery of Plattsburgh voted for her.
"I can't get behind him (Trump) morally, and I feel like he is not a good person and not necessarily a good human being."
Now, Avery believes his worst fears about the Trump presidency are coming true.
"Everyone quitting, new people coming on board, this constant revolving door that is the White House is exhausting, and that's the best word I can use for it."
Tony Griffith of Effingham, Illinois, a red spot in a blue state, said he’s an example of Trump’s business smarts. Griffith gave $1,000 bonuses to each of his 65 full-time employees after Trump signed the GOP tax cut bill, anticipating it will save his trucking company and related businesses $100,000 annually.
“I’m excited for my employees,” said Griffith. “This gives them hope that they are not just working at some hum-drum job, paying them the same until they die.”
In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where Trump was the first victorious Republican in the last five presidential elections, George Leitner, a retired educator, said he voted for Trump, breaking a vow to never vote for president again because occupants of the Oval Office seldom make a difference.
Leitner said Trump hasn’t accomplished as much as he’d prefer, and he’s not fond of the White House tumult or spending billions of tax dollars on a Mexican border wall. For now, however, he’s sticking with the president.
“He has a lot of good ideas. That’s why he got in.”
Beverly Holland of Malone, who voted for Trump because she saw Hillary as a far worse choice, wants to see that wall built to keep illegal aliens out.
"We have so much drugs and crime that comes across that border that it is scary," she said.
Tariffs on steel and aluminum drew objection in farm country. Dan Fleming, who farms in southern Indiana, said import duties will increase the price of tractors and other equipment needed to make a living from the soil.
“A lot of steel goes into a new $300,000 tractor,” said Fleming. “That’s a big expense.”
And, he added, American farmers will suffer the harsh consequences of retaliation by U.S. trade partners, pointing out U.S. agricultural exports amount to $140 billion a year, creating a $23.1 billion trade surplus — a positive not mentioned by the president when he deplores America’s overall trade deficit.
GOOD WAGES KEY
Nina Licastro, a Hillary Clinton voter from blue collar Johnstown, Pa., said she understands why western Pennsylvania voted for Trump — the successes of Obama’s presidency did not filter down to Rust Belt communities, where good jobs at good wages are key.
“The most pressing issue in the majority of this country is poverty,” said Licastro. “Until you address poverty, you can’t address education, you can’t address family planning, you can’t address the job market. Poverty and jobs go hand-in-hand.”
Barbara Stratton of Valdosta, Ga., is a diehard Trump fan who says she’s snubbed by close friends because of it.
“I don’t know what happened, but it was almost immediately after he got elected. There became a wall. They just think that if you like Trump something’s wrong with you.”
Judy Justin, 59, an administrative assistant in Athens, Ga., said Trump does not represent her values. She worries about intolerance toward immigrants, the rise of hate groups, decreased education spending and lack of diplomacy in foreign relations.
“Our faith has to be bigger than our fears,” she said.
TIED TO BIG MONEY
Paul Bardis of Plattsburgh voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, despite his liberal progressive leanings.
"I think most of the country, myself included, believes that big business and corporate money is influencing elections and politicians in ways that do not serve us," said the middle-school health teacher.
"Democrats and Republicans are tied to big money, and that influences them, including Hillary."
Cody Loveland, 34, who owns a company that builds aerodynamic race cars and parts in Buckley, Mich., said he voted for Trump because of his policies. He has concerns about his ability as the military’s commander in chief but is sticking with him for now.
“I will say he’s bold,” said Loveland. “He comes off as an idiot at times, but everyone says stupid stuff.”
— Staff Writer Joe LoTemplio contributed to this report.
PULSE OF THE VOTERS
To Our Readers: President Donald Trump's election has been attributed to the disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the anguish of voters in rural areas and small cities and towns. CNHI newspapers in scores of those communities are contributors to a special project to record voters concerns and attitudes, and will report results quarterly with local and national stories in advance of the November mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential election. The Pulse of the Voters project debuts today with its first installment, a five-part series. We welcome your feedback throughout the project.
Tomorrow: Pulse of the Voters profiles Plattsburgh resident Jacob Avery, a lifelong Republican who fears for the country with President Donald Trump at the helm.